In an age seemingly preoccupied with total body fitness, many swimmers are frowning down at flaccid thighs, as if seeing them for the first time. Cyclists, hunched over and locked in their toe clips, are yearning to breathe free occasionally. Bored runners, arms nearly vestigial, are finding their high to be not so high anymore. For whatever reason—because they are selectively fit and want to achieve totality, or are totally fit and want to prove it—ever increasing numbers of athletes are entering triathlons, those nonstop swim-bike-run phenomena of recent years.
Cut to the French Riviera, where the Nice World Triathlon Championships were held one Saturday last month. The 206 men and 15 women at Nice were competing for $75,000 in prize money, the most ever for a triathlon. The male and female winners would each take home a record $10,000, and as race day drew near one marveled at how far the sport had come since 1978. Was it really only five years ago that the first Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon was held? Twelve men survived a 2.4-mile swim through the enormous Pacific swells, stumbled ashore on Oahu to cycle for 112 more miles and then hopped, or fell, from their bikes to run a marathon.
In the first nine months of 1983 more than 200,000 Americans—girls next door, lepidopterists, even dentists—completed more than 1,000 triathlons. There were ultradistance events like the Ironman, and "sprint" races with 1.2-mile swims, 25-mile bike races and nine-mile runs. Nice would be a middle-distance race, with a 1.8-mile swim in the turquoise Mediterranean, a 75-mile bike race through the roller-coaster foothills of Les Alpes-Maritimes and an 18-mile run in the heat of a very hot day.
Now the starting clock was counting down. Most of the world's best triathletes stood waiting by the Baie des Anges, lined up like so many Michelangelo statues. None was more stunningly proportioned than three of the favored men: Mark Allen, winner of last year's Nice race, a relative newcomer with the right stuff; Scott Molina, scourge of the sprint distances; and Dave Scott, a specter to Allen and Molina, whose starting line chatter about "Dave" seemed like the last words of condemned men. Allen had never beaten Scott; Molina had beaten him only once, in a sprint race this summer. Last May, in Florida's Gulf Coast Triathlon, Scott had trailed them both through the 1.5-mile swim, the 62-mile bicycle leg and half of the 13.9-mile run. Then he left them panting in his dust. The previous October, in the sixth Ironman, which is, in effect, the world championship, Scott and Allen were neck and neck in the bike leg. No one else was close. Allen wore the look of cool composure for which he has become famous, and then, suddenly, a piece of the rear derailleur on his bike fell off, ending his day. Scott went on to win the Ironman for the second time, setting a record for the course. Winning an Ironman—merely finishing one—is an act of raw courage and athletic virtuosity. Winning two, as only Scott has done, is a feat for the ages.
Scott is an unusually handsome young man with teeth so white and large that he sometimes seems about to break into a grin when, in fact, his lips are merely parted. But on this morning in Nice he wasn't noticeably more fit than many of the other Adonises and Aphrodites around him. He is a very lean 6'1", 163 pounds, cookie-cutter standard for men in his sport. Allen is 6 feet and 152, and Molina 6 feet and 150, but Scott has extra sinew and width across the calves, in part from the 60 to 70 miles that he runs each week. He has the thighs of a serious cyclist, with enough tautness and breadth in the quadriceps to suggest the weekly 400 miles that he rides. And he has an upper body forged by calisthenics, work with free weights and a weekly 30,000 yards of swimming—a roundness in his pectorals and deltoids and well-defined ridges of muscle between his chest and waistline. In short, he's the classic male triathlete.
But Scott doesn't sit home and gloat over his physique. His workouts have always been so rigorous that they are legendary, in the real sense of the word; none of the other top triathletes ever sees him train. Most, including Allen and Molina, live in the San Diego area, where the elite triathlon community is one big support group and where the sunny climate facilitates training. Scott lives and trains in Davis, Calif., 65 miles east of San Francisco, a place of wintry gusts, driving spring rains and blasting summer heat. Much of his work is solitary, and he seems to draw strength from his aloneness. He's very modest, slightly shy at times, with a gently self-mocking sense of humor. But one day not long ago he laughed and said, "You know why I live up here? Because the weather stinks. Those other guys are soft. They're not hungry, and they know what to expect from each other."
Another aspect of the Scott legend concerns his dietary habits, the hours-long meals, the waitresses staggering to his side beneath the weight of overloaded trays. People are always saying things like, "Were you there the night Dave ate 17 bananas—for an appetizer?" When Scott gets the munchies, the kitchen cupboards all but implode. He has to eat that way. His typical 6½-to 8½-hour day of training burns up 5,500 to 6,000 calories, and he refuses to eat most high-calorie foods. He's convinced that endurance athletes perform best on a diet high in complex carbohydrates—no controversial view—and low in protein and fat. He believes excess fat in the diet is a leading cause of cancer and heart disease. He believes it so strongly that when he eats at home he rinses low-fat cottage cheese in a strainer to try for no-fat cottage cheese, and he sticks to a vegetarian diet when possible, eating no sugar and downing stupefying quantities of fruit, vegetables, brown-rice cakes and bean curd.
Scott wasn't able to find rice cakes or bean curd in Nice, so he ordinarily ate local fruit and bread in his little hotel room. He was staying at The Mercure—clean but Spartan. Allen and Molina and most of the 25 other San Diego triathletes were at the Hotel Negresco, described by an American Express travel brochure as a "vast white wedding-cake palace...temple to Edwardian grandeur."
One day Scott was exploring a dark, narrow street and found the only vegetarian restaurant in Nice, the Auberge In, where he ate on the eve of the race. The waitress spoke some English, so she understood when Scott said, "Your largest salad, please." Then Scott began running his finger down the menu. "I'll have this..." he said, tentatively. The waitress nodded and moved toward the kitchen. "And this..." She turned back toward him. "And this, two of this and three of this." She stopped writing, thinking herself the butt of a joke.
"No, really," Scott assured her. "And I'll have another salad, too."
He had picked out words he recognized—blini and gnocchi. He ordered two of each and then three of the "Surprise Chaude—une galette de céréales et légumes." He had a fair idea of what céréales et légumes were. He also found himself with a large wedge of what looked like quiche, and a vegetarian burger. When he was served, the scene looked like a model of the solar system; Scott was the sun, and his plates were the planets.
He started eating at 7:15, and at 8:45, as he was finishing, the waitress came by with a large platter of what looked like cake.
"Is milk and cheese," she said.
"Is that a dessert?" he asked.
"No, is from beginning." So at 9 p.m. Scott started from the beginning.
Twelve hours later, at 9 a.m., a classic triathlon swimming start was under way.
The Baie des Anges was the marine equivalent of rush hour on the Rue de la Paix, complete with tailgating, pileups and inadvertent scratching. Scott, by the halfway point, was third in a lead pack of four. One could see the distinctive, wide recovery of his left arm. Though he's the world's best triathlete, Scott accurately says, "My stroke is horrendous, but I'm competitive. I don't care about leading out of the water, as long as I'm close to the front."
The top three swimmers picked up their pace, but near the end Scott stopped swimming freestyle and began doing the less efficient back-and breaststrokes. He knows the freestyle flutter kick, with the legs extended and the toes pointed, can cause the calves to tighten and cramp as the bicycle leg begins; the frog kick, feet flexed, tends to have the opposite effect. As Scott said earlier, "It loosens up the hip flexors and calf muscles, causing the feet to dorsiflex, the position they're in when riding." Most top-level triathletes know this, but few, other than Scott, ever do anything about it.
Molina completed the swim in 35:35, eight seconds ahead of Allen and 49 ahead of fourth-place Scott. England's Mick Flaherty was third, but he would cease to be a factor in the bike leg. It's impossible to be a world-class triathlete and be weak in any of the three disciplines. But versatility is no guarantee of success. Tactics and planning are just as vital. Kick too hard on the swim and your legs are slow to start on the bike. Gulp salt water and your stomach won't work, on the bike or off. Don't ride hard enough, and you'd better be a five-minute miler. Ride too hard and you die on the run. Don't drink enough on a hot day in a lengthy triathlon and you really die on the run. Ride carelessly or fail to check your bike out and you may not even get to the run. But those are just basic triathlon variables. At Nice, as the race progressed, there were others, some merely unique, some bizarre.
Now the leaders sat in the swim-bike transition area, practicing the new art of speed shoelace-tying. Allen led the little pack on to the Promenade des Anglais, which stretches about five miles along the Baie. He had a quarter-mile lead on Molina at the 14-mile point, the start of a bridge over the river Var; he was halfway across, following the car with the pace clock, when a policeman on a motorcycle pulled up next to him and shouted, "Turn around! You're going the wrong way." The cop was wrong. Allen knew that the course crossed the bridge and continued north to the village of Plan-du-Var, the start of 35 tortuous miles along the Gorges de la Vesubie and beyond. Finally, it would double back, recross the bridge and take a rugged nine-mile loop before returning to Nice. Now Allen was being told that the loop came first. Confused, he turned around at mid-bridge. Meanwhile, Molina, no less befuddled, had also been directed to reverse course at the bridge entrance. Suddenly, Allen was second, with Scott coming on strong, as usual.
Only two of 221 cyclists refused to turn—three-time Olympic cyclist and 1981 Ironman winner John Howard and George Yates, a triathlete from Corona del Mar, Calif. A friend of Allen's watched Howard and Yates streak alone through Plan-du-Var and was no less confused than Allen. He had waited for the swimming leaders to leave the water and then had sped ahead to watch them race through the gorge. So where were they? Howard and Yates were much slower swimmers than Molina, Allen and Scott. Could the two have passed them on the road? Howard is a superb cyclist, but he wasn't riding a motorbike. When 10 minutes had passed and no other cyclists came by, it seemed the only plausible explanation was that most of the world's best triathletes had crashed like a pile of pickup sticks. Certainly they couldn't have taken a wrong turn, not all of them. Allen's friend chased the leaders into the gorge.
But were they the leaders? Did merely being on the right course make Howard and Yates the frontrunners? Certainly Molina, Allen and Scott had covered more miles. Couldn't they just do the race backward? Howard, when told he was in the right, asked, "Will I be disqualified?" Were Molina, Allen and Scott going to be disqualified, along with virtually the entire field?
Allen caught Molina in Plan-du-Var. They had completed the nine-mile loop, and as they moved into the gorge, Howard and Yates were 10 minutes ahead of them and Scott was five to the rear. And all were in danger of becoming dehydrated. There were too few aid stations, and the volunteers who manned them were ludicrously ill-equipped for the job. When the cyclists cried out for water, if they got anything at all it was a banana or a foul-tasting European electrolyte drink that would cause problems later.
The Gorges de la Vesubie is the pi√®ce de résistance of what may be the world's most spectacularly scenic triathlon bicycle course. Jagged, vertical walls keep much of it forever cool and shady; its ribbon of road is a lip at the edge of eternity, and the river beckons far below. But most of the bicycle racers, with the possible exception of Scott, seemed far too single-minded to dwell on scenery. Scott, laboring up a hill, seemed dreamy and sluggish. Two cyclists whizzed by, dropping him to fifth in the majority group. That was hardly surprising.
The summer just ending had been the most difficult of Scott's life. Achilles tendon trouble had kept him out of a June race, Molina had beaten him in July, and he had withdrawn from two other summer races. Personal troubles were laying him low, and there were days when he didn't even train. In fact, in the five days before he'd left for Nice, he'd reduced his training to almost nothing.
In retrospect, his year had been a mess from the start. In late January, returning from a frigid cycling workout, he'd skidded on, of all things, a pile of crushed olives and hit the pavement hard, gashing his left elbow and badly bruising his right hip. He couldn't run for a month. Then one day while the hip was healing he was time-trialing, moving along at 25 mph, head down, eyes on the white line at the road's edge. This time he hit a dead possum, went hurtling over his handlebars, opened the elbow wound again and wrenched the hip. He continued to run and ride, but it hurt.
Olive Pits and Dead Possums would make a perfect title for Scott's biography. Even by triathlon's strange standards, there's nothing typical about his life or his training regimen, which are practically one and the same. In both there's that strain of self-imposed stoicism. One morning in early January, two weeks before the olives incident, after completing a 10-mile run, he put on his bicycle shorts and shoes, a goose-down vest, a pair of Duegi insulated booties and headed out on his bike.
A friend had asked him earlier, "What do you think of out there?" after seeing Scott's cycling route, the lonely road heading west from Davis, where all winds seem to be head winds. "My rhythms," Scott replied. "And lunch."
Much of the first 20 miles was through flat farmland. There was the pungent aroma of growing onions, but the almond and peach groves, though full of spring promise, were bare—a nearly perfect metaphor for Scott's life. The onions were his day-to-day existence, meager and spare. The almonds and peaches were pleasures deferred. They would blossom gloriously, as would the rewards he'd reap—a cramp-free bicycle leg in June, a big win in August, a vital old age.
At mile 22 he reached the base of what he calls the Dam Hill and climbed it in 3½ minutes. Streaking down the other side, his head and shoulders tucked in, he reached 40 mph. The air temperature was 38°, and the wind hit his face at 25 mph. Minutes later, pumping into the wind up 1½-mile-long Cardiac Hill, Scott moaned, "I feel terrible.... I wonder how many times I'll do this before the Ironman.... It does give me an advantage. In Hawaii, most cyclists can't contend with the headwinds."
Back in his kitchen, after virtually inhaling six oranges, Scott began sandwiching whole bananas between brown-rice cakes. He downed five such combinations, between bites constructing a salad of sorts—four more bananas, sliced; six apples, sliced, and 10 ounces of low-fat cottage cheese. Rinsed, of course. While lovingly attending to all that, he reached into the refrigerator and came out with an unheard-of high-fat lapse—a large bowlful of an aromatic homemade puree of almond butter, onions, garlic, garbanzo beans and lemon juice. He began lading that onto whole wheat crackers and more rice cakes. When everything was gone, he said, "Now I have to earn a living."
After the first of his two Ironman titles, in 1980, Scott began designing training programs for budding triathletes. They phoned from all over the country, and he would talk to them for hours. Finally he began to charge for the service, anywhere from $150 to $275 for drawing up a one-year regimen. In '82 he completed 12 of them. He also stages daylong clinics—six last year—from which he takes home between $300 and $800.
Scott also has four sponsors—Nike, which provides all of his athletic clothes and pays him a salary, with bonuses based on his competitive performance, Anheuser-Busch, Bell (helmets) and Peak Performance (vitamins), all of which pay him "a little money." His major competitors—Molina, Allen and Scott Tinley, the February 1982 Ironman winner—are sponsored by a San Diego outfit named JDavid (see box below).
No triathlete has yet made a living from prize money. Ironman, the sport's most prestigious competition, has never offered any, apparently on the theory that just taking part is reward aplenty. Top prizes at the $15,000 Gulf Coast Triathlon in May were $2,500. The 11 sprint races of the 1983 U.S. Triathlon Series had purses of only $4,000, with $1,000 to the winners. The U.S. Triathlon Series Championship race that took place two weeks ago near Yosemite National Park paid $3,500-to each winner.
Last January in Davis, Scott, juggling his bank balance and his 1983 schedule, was doing six three-sport workouts a week—runs usually first, swims always last, because "running pounds your legs into the ground. If you do it after cycling, when you're fatigued, you become especially vulnerable to injuries. But the swimming, aaah, after all that pounding and pumping, it feels so good."
On the night of one of those January cycling ordeals, Scott rolled back the cover of the Civic Center pool, dived in and disappeared in a steamy cloud. His wayward left arm kept poking out, like the neck of a bottom-feeding swan, and he swam 4,850 yards. That's typical daily yardage for a world-class triathlete, but the arrangement of Scott's rest intervals was unusually demanding. Between each of the first five of seven 500s he paused for 30 seconds; the 500s grew faster, and between the sixth and seventh, though he had grown progressively more fatigued, he only paused for 15 seconds. "Most people don't do rest intervals that way," he said. "It's for added stress." So goes his season. The 500s get faster, and the rests get shorter, sometimes down to five seconds with a big race coming up.
His endurance work done, Scott was still in the pool, but now on his back, head up, rear end way down, his feet in the air. He was "breaststroking"—feet first. Then he was dolphin kicking, as in the butterfly stroke. Still on his back. Another swimmer tried to mimic him and gave up, groaning. Scott chuckled. "Those exercises really work the midsection, don't they?" he said. "I invented them."
Scott started swimming at the ripe old competitive age of seven, and he continued in age-group competition until he was 17. Almost from the start his freestyle form featured that "horrendous" stroke. "I never felt swimming was my forte," he says. "I'm not very buoyant or flexible. I don't have a good kinesthetic sense." He played tight end and flankerback in his first two years at Davis High, and basketball for four years—"until I realized that I should stay in the water." He swam for four years at the University of California at Davis, but his best sport there was water polo. In his junior and senior years he was named to the All-America team.
From 1974 to 1981 Scott coached the Davis Aquatic Masters Swim Club, and in 1976 he got his bachelor's degree in physical education from Davis. He might have settled in for a lengthy coaching career were it not for a remark by a Navy man named John Collins.
Collins made his statement in a bar on Oahu in late 1977. A good-natured argument was in progress: "Who are the fittest athletes—swimmers, cyclists or runners?" Each group had its own favorite local race—the 2.4-mile Waikiki Rough Water Swim, the 112-mile Around Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon. Collins piped up, "Why don't we put them all together?" And the Hawaiian Ironman was born. So, for all intents and purposes, was the triathlon.
Scott had at the time been running 40 miles a week, swimming 24 and training with weights—"I enjoyed being aerobically fit, even then," he recalls—and wondering what to do with it all. When he read Barry McDermott's article about the second Ironman in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (May 14, 1979) he gradually added 250 miles a week of cycling, and in January of 1980 he turned the third Ironman into a two-division race—Scott, with a time of 9:24:33, and 107 other entrants, the first of whom finished in 10:24:41. It was the first nationally televised triathlon. ABC-TV's Wide World of Sports filmed it, despite Collins' warning that "there's no way you can make this interesting." He was wrong, of course, and that ABC telecast played the initial role in popularizing the sport.
The two passing cyclists jarred Scott from his lethargy. He caught up and rode with them for 17 miles, out of the gorge to St. Jean la Rivi√®re, where some of the day's most brutal climbing began. It lasted three miles, which was enough. Then the road began to fall, down steep mountainsides more suited to burros than to bicycles. Scott wasn't riding at his best, but at Aspremont he recaptured his position behind Allen and Molina, who at one point had been nearly 10 minutes ahead of him. They still hadn't passed Howard and Yates, who maintained a lead that probably wasn't a lead. All the cyclists were vainly seeking water. Some got the electrolyte drink, others sped toward the aid tables, right arms extended for what should have been obvious reasons. The volunteers smiled and waved.
Scott had drawn no closer to the leaders: Cycling back along the promenade, he passed within inches of Allen, starting his run after three hours and 23 minutes on his bike. At 1 p.m. it was 88°, and the air was like transparent steam. Allen was running smoothly and feeling fine, but he needed water. Molina, 33 seconds behind him and dehydrated, was "going down the tubes," as he put it later. He barely made it the three miles to the first aid station, where he set up housekeeping for a few minutes, eating bananas and gulping water. There was no shortage of that at the running aid stations; unfortunately, there was a woeful shortage of stations—only eight in 18 miles.
Four miles out, just past the Nice airport, where the running course turned north along the Var, Scott trailed Allen by 9½ minutes, Molina by seven. He passed Molina less than four miles later, in part because Molina had slowed. Scott's level of energy was inconsistent, like a fine car whose ignition is skipping. Full of water from one of the infrequent aid stations, he would surge ahead. But soon he would be laboring again, upper arms barely moving. At the turnaround, nine miles into the run, a promised aid station was nowhere in sight. Scott headed back, crestfallen. He called to a stranger, "I need an orange, and some water. Bad!" He accepted a bottle of water from a man on a bicycle; that was against the rules, but everyone was doing it.
Allen was still looking strong, a superb triathlete at his best. He ran his 12th mile in six minutes, and someone shouted, "Nine minutes back," referring to Scott. But it was then, when Allen's victory seemed certain, that a strange, vacant expression began to come over his face. Normally the most self-possessed of young men, he was trying to acknowledge the presence of roadside well-wishers, but seemed unable to find them; his eyes wouldn't focus. By the time he reached the airport again, the spring was gone from his leg muscles. On the promenade, where admirers urged him on, calling out "Merveilleux!" and "Formidable!" he began to stumble. Suddenly, 1½ miles from the finish line, he fell to his knees. He rose and continued forward but looked like a race-walker in slow motion, his style exaggerated, his arms extended wildly for balance. TV commentator Frank Shorter, by his side and walking backward, called to him, "Don't run. Walk. No one else is in sight."
Not quite true. Less than a mile back, nearly lost among runners who were just starting out, a little dot was breasting the tide. It was Scott.
He didn't know what was happening up ahead. He hadn't known, five miles back, that Allen was breaking down. "Would it have made any difference if you had?" he was asked, after Allen had beaten him to the finish line by three minutes and 24 seconds, with a winning time of 6:04.51. "Maybe," he said. "But it's Mark's day," and he turned to embrace his former girl friend, Linda Buchanan, who had won the women's race in 7:06:03.
Allen lay on a massage bench, drinking orange juice and cold water. Molina, third with a time of 6:11:27, was on the next table, gobbling Mars bars. One friend massaged Allen's blistered feet, a second held an ice bag to his knee and a third wiped his brow. Light-headed, he was not responding to questions. An American doctor turned to a French race official and said, "Do you have any IV solution we can put in his veins?"
The official offered him a jar of Vaseline.
When Allen could talk about his finish he said, "There's no reason for me to fall apart like that in a six-hour race. I do workouts that are longer. It must have been the electrolyte. Dave said that if the electrolyte is improperly mixed, it draws water into your gastrointestinal tract to dilute the sugar in the drink: That produces faster dehydration, and ultimately you can crash."
He was asked about Scott, how it felt to finally beat him. "I kept thinking about the Florida race," Allen said. " 'Could that be happening again?' I knew Dave was behind me. I figured he would pass me any second. When he's in a race, unless you're on the finish line, you can never count him out. I want to improve, and to do so I need a goal. I might as well go after the best, and Dave's the best there is."
The winner's reception was held the next morning. Upon being presented with his check for $10,000, Allen said, "I may have had the fastest time out there yesterday, but I think everyone who completed that course is a champion."
It is an oft-repeated sentiment these days, heard at every sort of endurance event, but it seemed to have a special relevance on this day. Triathletes are truly pioneers of sport. Every race they enter is a journey into the unknown, and that was never more true than in Nice on a torrid September Saturday in 1983.